President Obama’s speech on the Middle East represents a watershed in his shift from a destructive and delusional approach to the Middle East, marked by indifference to democracy promotion and solicitude toward tyrants, toward embracing a policy that looks a lot like George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda. This has generated a bit of mockery, but it’s extremely welcome. It’s a bit late (years late in the case of his comments on Iran, weeks late on the rest), but better late than never. And it would be nice if he shifted further: With the formulation of his criticism of Bashar Assad — “he can lead that transition [to democracy], or get out of the way” — he is clinging to the untenable notion that there is any chance that Assad will reform.
Even Obama’s discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wasn’t too bad — a very pleasant surprise — but it was probably a mistake to include it. The imperative for reform in the Middle East has very little to do with Israel. Obama correctly noted that Arab dictators encourage antipathy toward Israel as a distraction from their own perfidy; why play their game by engaging with that issue at such length?
But it’s no surprise that there are still some problems with Obama’s foreign policy. What is a surprise is how much better it’s gotten.